Malcolm Rowe had never approved of that second referendum. Come to think of it, he had never been that enthusiastic about the first one. But he had gone along with it, telling himself he believed in democracy and consulting the people, and the truth was, that when it came to the EU, he could take it or leave it. He thought that leaving would be bad for the economy (and had been proved largely right, though he admitted there were exceptions) but wasn’t inclined to come over all tearful if he heard Ode to Joy or saw the flag with the blue background and gold stars on TV or when he was on holiday.
One thing he did firmly believe was that referenda should only ever be held on constitutional matters. Nothing else.
But I did not believe it firmly enough, he thought, taking a swig of whisky that burnt his throat and did nothing to calm his mind on what would be the longest night of his life.
No. At the start of the long night that would be his life.
He took another swig, and choked on it, and thought, why should I have any right to even try to dull the pain and still my thoughts. She doesn’t have that right.
He was (or always thought he had been) an honest man, and had no illusions that his relationship with his daughter Ava was idyllic or unproblematic. On the most literal level she undeniably was a daddy’s girl, as her mother had left when she was three. Malcolm had had what he rather quaintly termed “lady friends” now and then, but nothing had come of it. People sometimes said he was married to politics, but it wasn’t entirely true. It was the oldest cliché in the book, which didn’t mean it wasn’t true. He and Ava were too similar. They both could be prickly and over-react one minute and be lethargic the next, and both seemed to swing between procrastination and urgency. But for all that, they were close. A closeness that was no less intense because it sometimes spilled over into conflict. In looks, it had to be said, she was more like her mother – wiry, with a fair, clear skin, piercing blue eyes and a mop of thick chestnut hair. Even as a toddler she refused to conform to stereotypes. She was both a tomboy and a “girly girl” and neither.
She was exceedingly bright, and usually hardworking, though at times she could fall into a kind of sloth that Malcolm couldn’t rebuke her too harshly for, because he recognised it in himself. He was secretly and not so secretly proud that she was accepted at one of the country’s top universities to read politics, and refused to study it in the conventional combination with philosophy and economics, but combined it with theology, that rather surprised Malcolm as she wasn’t especially religious, though, like him, she could be moved to tears by the St Matthew Passion.
“It interests me,” she said, simply, by way of explanation, though she plainly felt no especial need to explain herself. “You can’t study ethics now, at least, I’ve never found anywhere you can, so it’s the next best thing.”
That was the thing about Ava, thought Malcolm, half-wishing that tears would come now, though he knew they would not be the same as those evoked by beautiful music. She was ethical. She could be pragmatic, but to use one of those political phrases that now seemed so dated and faded, she had her red lines. She did not believe in settling for a quiet life, and did not hide her scorn for those who did. She could respect another person’s point of view, but when certain subjects came around, her face took on an expression that you could positively feel as well as see.
She was old enough to vote in the first referendum, and made no secret of the fact that she was definitely on the other side of the argument. This strained her relationship with her father, not to mention causing some political embarrassment, though as she pointed out, that was a mere side-effect and not what she set out to do, but it didn’t break.
She didn’t go into politics immediately on leaving university. He was surprised about that, and really didn’t know if he were disappointed or relieved. He would love her to follow in his footsteps, but sometimes felt (though he knew better than to say) that she was too good for it. She did a course in Teaching English as a Second Language and spent a couple of years at a school in Rwanda, which she loved. Malcolm would never have wanted to try to clip her wings (not that he could!) but part of him couldn’t help being pleased when she told him (as he had suspected) that she had grown close to Frank Morton, a doctor who worked for the same charity, and they were going to come back to the UK and set up home together. He noticed she didn’t say “married” but suppressed his sigh. After all, he had been married, and much good had it done him!
On the surface, he and Frank got on very well. Frank shared his centre-right politics, and his taste for real ale. He knew that his patients only called him “Dr Frank” to distinguish him from his father, who was still practising, but it had an old-fashioned ring to it that was rather nice and suited him.
The truth was, all seemed to be very well with Ava and Frank, and Malcolm had other things on his mind. Well, he had one other thing on his mind. By now he had been promoted, rather late in life, to a senior position in the Home Office, and there were even whispers about him being a candidate for the next Home Secretary. And the clamour was growing for that second referendum. The one on hanging.
The campaigners for it would, of course, have known better than to say (even if they thought) that circumstances were in their favour. You just didn’t exploit a tragedy like that. Or you did, but you did so carefully. You filtered out any positive words about tragic events.
Two terrible incidents had happened within a short period of time. A little girl had been strangled by a trusted family friend and then there was a terror attack in a seaside resort. Cries of Justice for Jenny and Justice for the Peacehaven 25 began to be heard, and began to dominate the headlines of the tabloids who “demanded” a referendum.
To nobody’s surprise, this was one of Ava’s red lines, and one of her thickest and most glowing scarlet ones. “Dad, you have to do something about it!” she told him.
“Love, I’m totally against the death penalty too. You know that, but ….”
“There isn’t a but here, Dad. There just isn’t. End of story. Look – I’m realistic enough to know that you may not be able to stop this – this hideous thing – happening. I accept that. But being a part of the establishment that’s organising the referendum – I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that will do to our relationship!”
He reached what he thought was a compromise. The vote allowing the referendum was a vote of conscience, and he voted against it. But after that – oh, he turned up on chat shows saying the right things, the PM was quite particular about his party members having freedom of speech – but everyone knew that was within certain bounds. And Malcolm kept within those bounds.
The referendum was held. Hanging was re-introduced. It turned out that Ava hadn’t issued an idle threat. There was virtually no communication between them for the next couple of years. She didn’t answer his emails or his phone calls. He only heard about her from others – and what he heard was worrying. It was more than worrying. Or at least, it depended who you listened to. Dr Frank’s patients (he was officially Dr Morton now, as his father had retired, but old habits died hard) generally only had good words for him. He was patient and had time for them, and always remembered the names of their children or their parents or even their pets.
But nobody had seen much of Ava. For a while she had given private tuition (apparently salving her conscience by making some of it unpaid) and done some paperwork for the charity’s UK branch. That seemed to have petered out, though. There were rumours that she was pregnant. Malcolm’s heart leapt at that. After all, grandchildren always led to reconciliation – didn’t they? But it didn’t assuage his concern. This was well into the 21st century for heaven’s sake, and the time was well past thank goodness, when pregnant women didn’t “show” themselves!
In desperation, he sent an email to Frank’s surgery and received a pleasant reply, “Hi, Malcolm, so glad to hear from you, sorry you left it so long! I know how awkward and traumatic this must be for you. I live in hope that Ava will soften her heart and that the two of you will be reconciled. All best wishes ,Frank.”
And that was that. No mention of her being pregnant and surely – SURELY! – he would have mentioned it if she were. And reading it again he had to admit that it hardly gave him cause for any optimism.
I should have done something, thought Malcolm, pacing across the room. He suddenly felt the walls closing in on him, opened the curtains, looked on a grey and seemingly featureless night, shut them again. I did nothing to oppose that referendum and its consequences. Not really. And I was still in the Home Office until it became impossible for me to stay.
I should have done something, thought Malcolm. He liked to think he was a perceptive man. Why had he not realised that email was effectively giving him the brush off, saying keep away? If he and Ava couldn’t be reconciled, then – well, it would have been awful but at least he would have tried. He had been too cowardly to try. He had taken everything at face value. He hadn’t wanted a row with Frank. Why? Had be been scared of it?
The truth was he had never liked Frank as much as people thought he did and as much as he tried to believe he did. He would have been hard-pushed to say why, and disliking people for no real reason was irrational – wasn’t it? Maybe he thought Ava was too young to commit herself, but that was no reason to blame Frank.
Then the letter came. It was from one of his former constituents, who was now living in the same town as Frank and Ava. He had a good visual memory, and immediately saw the writer, Caroline Harker, in his mind’s eye – a troubled-looking woman with a gentle face and a rather scuttling way of walking.
Dear Mr Rowe
I know this is none of my business and I am speaking out of turn, something my mother always used to accuse me of. But you were very helpful to me over that nasty business with the fly tipping and I can’t rest until I’ve written to you, letting you know what’s worrying me.
We always used to see Ava around town, and I used to like having a few words with her though I didn’t mention you as I know you had that falling out. She has always seemed a pleasant young lady but one who knows her own mind.
Well, lately I have not seen much of her and Dr Frank said she was ill. But I might as well be honest with you Mr Rowe, I didn’t like his manner. I always thought he was a decent man, a real old fashioned caring doctor, but he was positively sharp with me, and next time I was in the surgery it seemed he couldn’t wait to get rid of me.
Like I said, I have not seen Ava, but my friend Maureen has, and she said – the phrase has stuck in my mind – that all the spark has gone out of her. Oh Mr Rowe I don’t know if I am doing right to tell you this or not but she also said that though it was a warm day she had a scarf round her neck. That may signify absolutely nothing at all or it may be that she is ill and feeling the cold. But I think you have the right to know.
Forgive me for this letter if it is inappropriate.
Caroline Harker (Mrs)
He would still have had time, if he hadn’t agonised over that letter one minute and tried to convince himself he had dismissed it the next.
Three days later, Ava was accused with Frank’s murder. She had taken a knife to him in what the press, predictably, described as a frenzied attack, as if there were such a thing as a calm one. In court, prompted by her defence counsel, she told of the beatings, the hands round her neck, the attempt to stifle any attempt she made to keep her independence. She had her supporters, to be sure. Nobody could deny her scars were real. But there were also, as there always were, those who said that she didn’t have to kill him, there were such things as women’s refuges, and those who said that all couples quarrelled, and Dr Frank was such a nice man, and it was probably six of one and half a dozen of the other.
It was true she was desperately unlucky with her judge. Some had resigned immediately after the referendum result, others claimed they hated doing what they sometimes had to do but seemed able to square their consciences. But there were a few who considered it was well overdue and had thought never to see it in their lifetimes. And Justice Alison Prior was one of them. She gave anyone who suggested that a woman should be more compassionate very short shrift, and said that Ava had been well-educated and privileged and (judges were not immune from this opinion) could either have gone to a refuge or gone home to her father. She spoke Malcolm Rowe’s name with contempt, though not with one millionth of the contempt he felt for himself.
There was an appeal, of course, and it was assumed that there would be a reprieve. Despite the law being passed, actual hangings were still very rare, especially in “domestics”.
The one consolation, in a world where there would never be consolations, was that Ava and her father were reconciled. Even though now, dear God, she had more reason than ever to hate him, she wrote to him and said that he was not to fret if the appeal were unsuccessful. “I want to live, Dad, of course I do,” she wrote, “I am so scared and I am so angry. But a whole life in a prison cell? That takes some facing, too!”
The appeals had been unsuccessful. An example had to be made. There could be no special treatment for the former politician’s daughter.
The long night, that was the start of the longer night, came to an end. Malcolm did not look at his watch, did not look at the clock, but he knew, of course he knew.
He could have done something. He had chance after chance.
And now it would always be too late.